Sunday, May 15, 2011

Henry The Bull

     Growing up on a cattle farm, I spent hours and hours in the pasture. My mother warned me to stay away from "Henry" the Black Angus Bull, and I did. His progeny were a different matter. Over those years I perfected a method of befriending the steer and the calves. Cattle are shy creatures. I patiently gained their trust. I'd get closer and closer to them over a few days and then sit and wait. Their curiosity piqued, they would inch closer, necks outstretched, nostrils snorting and breathing deeply. I would offer an apple then, and bristle-y tongues would dart and arc out of their mouths to chance a taste. The group would move as one, but there was always a leader a little more bold than the others. He'd get the first contact and back up, the whole group backing away with him. He'd come again and again. Finally, he'd get a bite of apple.

     I considered it a success if I managed to get a touch or a pet in. They were cute. The mothers were remarkably trusting. Henry pretty much stayed away, and ate to fuel his giant body. Years later as an adult, I'd still enjoy watching the Black Angus herds on neighboring farms. Susanna was two or three when she asked to go see the "Black Mangoes." Took me a minute, but with a laugh we jumped in the car and did just that.

     A well-known method of relaxation is to imagine yourself in a peaceful place, maybe on the beach or at a park or beside a bubbling brook. To this day, my place of refuge is in the pasture, under the trees on the farm where I was a child. We had no PC's, no videos, no cell phones. No, but we did have hours and hours of play, adventure, exercise, creativity and make-believe. I want to be sure that my children have that.

     Old Henry? He really was calm--except when a neighboring Hereford Bull broke out one day. Henry cracked out of the post-and-rail fence as though it were chopsticks, and faced off. He'd be sure that no other bull would get to his cows. Mr. Mayo, Henry's owner, saw it all and raced to the scene. With courageous effort he managed to scare off the other bull. Henry, however, would not budge. The story goes that Mr. Mayo had to grab a 2 X 4 to "convince" angry Henry to go back through the broken fence.  It was about the only Henry drama we ever knew.

     A few years ago we acquired a bull calf. A Jersey. We named him Henry. It didn't take long for us to realize we'd have to either castrate him or sell him (what were we thinking?). Luckily, a local woman who milks her own cow needed a young calf. Her cow's calf had died and she wanted to see if Henry would be accepted by her; that is, if we could part with him. We were happy for Henry to have a better purpose in life than to fulfill a memory or a whim of mine. He didn't need to be paraded over little jumps and ridden one day (cattle do jump!). We certainly would never have been able to send him to slaughter. We had bonded, and he was just too cute.

     There are so many good memories of the old farm that I'm thankful for. It's why I asked Bruce if we could try our hand at small-farming. It's a lot of work. Bruce's co-workers talk about perfect lawns and carpentry workshops and television viewing. Bruce plays with children and cuts grass. Many children and lots of grass. He never complains. I love my suburbian-raised husband for loving me enough to take on this farm. He says he loves our place, too.

     I don't think we'll ever raise beef cattle. I just have too many memories of my friends,
 the Black Mangoes.


The Abbey Farm

Photography by my brother, Chip Greene

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


   "On a cloud," "subbing at work" or "like a boat" are more common applications of the word "floating." Lesser-known is "filing of horse teeth." Horses' teeth grow continuously until old age when they begin to wear down. It's a fairly steady process so that a horse's age can be determined by its teeth. Most of us are familiar with scenes in a book or movie when people argue over the age of a horse and someone yanks open the horse's mouth to look inside. Horses are grazing animals and eat for a good part of the day. Their side to side chewing action causes sharp edges to build up on the sides of their teeth. The sharp edges become painful and can interfere with eating. So we need to "float" them.

     I once created quite a problem when I had my horse's teeth floated. It was one of those times where the unfortunate or ridiculous happens, when certain conditions and events fall into place for no reason to annoy us, to confound us, or to get us angry. Though we don't have a choice that it has happened, we do  have a choice as to how we react.  Patience and temperance are virtues. I claim to be no expert, but it is my job to teach them to my children. It makes me feel better to consider that the Olympic coach who can't perfectly execute the "Round-Off, Back Handspring, Back Somersault"-- can teach someone to do it.

     I love the movie, "To Kill A Mockingbird."  I love Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch and Robert Duvall as Boo Radley. There are profound lessons in the movie. Lessons on prejudice, innocence, law, justice, disabilities, and my favorite: self-control. Atticus Finch is my hero. Watch the movie to the end and see why.

     We are called to be good examples to our children. We need to teach them self-control and self-reliance, as well as humility and how to accept help.  A predator picks off a victim and separates it from the herd. When we are separated and alone we are most vulnerable. God knows, we need each other. For help. For inspiration.

     Goodness, what has this to do with horse teeth? Our vet's patience was stretched, I'm sure, when I insisted he come to our farm to float old "George's" teeth. George was an extremely large Thoroughbred, standing 17.1 hands at his withers (base of his neck). That's 69 inches; an average sized man could barely see over his back. I was unable to find a trailer big enough out here in "Quarterhorse Land" to fit him. As much as I wished, I couldn't cut a hole in the top of ours and transport him like the circus animals on the train in "Dumbo." So I asked the vet to please come to us.

     Our vet has a great facility. He has the newest equipment. In the "olden days" of my youth we grabbed the horse's tongue, pulled it to the side which forced the mouth open, felt around bravely and somewhat blindly for sharp edges and inserted a rasp (large 1 1/2" X 18" file) to grind down the edges. Inevitably, a finger would get chomped on, scraped or cut. The vet has a much better system. He has a speculum which is inserted into the horse's mouth and secured by a halter. He has an electric burr grinder attached to the end of a two-foot metal pole with a trigger that starts it. And he has a stall-like "stock"  for the horse to be secured in, standing. The owner brings the horse to the facility. The horse is put in the stock, given a mild sedative and the halter/speculum is put in place. Then a lead shank (rope) attached to the halter is thrown over the top of the stock to hold the horse's head up, mouth open wide as the vet burrs away. It is very convenient and efficient.

     Coming to our farm was neither convenient nor efficient, but Dr. McCool graciously consented. Yes, his name is McCool. He is cool. He and his wife are both vets and are fantastic people. We are blessed. Truly. But I don't think he felt blessed that day.  I think we ultimately fell into that "extremely frustrating and annoying event" category for him. George had stood perfectly well all his life to have his teeth floated the old fashioned way. This, I knew, would be a breeze. After parking his truck near the barn, Dr. McCool drew up a smaller than usual dose of tranquilizer, explaining that Thoroughbreds were sensitive and did not need as much as some breeds. George patiently endured the injection, we placed the halter and speculum on him and Dr. McCool threw the rope attached to the halter up and over the rafter just above the stall door. It was tied at just the right height for the doc to peer straight into George's mouth. George was perfect.

     Until he began to sway. To Dr. McCool's "No, no...Oh, no...", George's twelve hundred pounds pitched forward and collapsed. Halter still tied to the rafter, he was suspended by his head.  I froze, wide-eyed, but Dr. McCool deftly pulled a knife from his pocket and sliced the rope. George fell. Thankfully, no broken neck. He lay there and groaned in a drugged stupor, his mouth still open wide.

     Dr. McCool probably wondered why he let this crazy redhead talk him into coming out. He threw all his equipment back into the truck. For me, all at the same time I was amazed, relieved, embarrassed and kind of--fascinated. George was breathing and relaxed and in no pain. He was lying on his side with his head sticking out of the open stall door. I couldn't help but get down on my knees and stare into his gaping mouth. I'd never seen it all so clearly and still. I reached deep inside and found the sharp edges of his teeth. I felt his velvety smooth tongue. A horse's mouth is cavernous. I kept repeating, "Wow!" Slowly and resigned, Dr. McCool came back with his equipment. With a sigh he dropped down beside me. His face was calm. I moved over, and he proceeded to finish the floating job--lying down.

     In the end, George had smooth teeth. I had a bigger than usual bill because of the farm-call. That was understandable.  What made it a little bizarre, was that in hanging George from the rafter, an electric conduit was crushed, cutting off electricity to half the barn and requiring yet another farm-call:  the Electrician. A floating that should have cost $25.00 ratcheted up to $300.00.  There was nothing I could do. On the bright side, George was uninjured and healthy. Dr. McCool went well beyond the call of duty.

     There are certainly tougher things that happen in our lives: serious illness, loss of work, death. The little annoyances are trial runs, so let's not sweat the small stuff. Our character should be shaped, not distorted. The tough stuff will come. I learned that when I lost my husband, Bob, suddenly. What sustained me was God, my family and my friends. People said, "I can't imagine what you're going through." The truth is, I couldn't either. I had no choice but to go through it. One breath at a time, one moment at a time. There was deep pain, but I can say there was no panic, no shock, only a oneness with the Holy Spirit that I cannot describe. I told Him He needed to carry me. He said He would. And He has, so very far.

     Stressful mornings before school, spilled milk, difficult teeth floating and annoying events don't compare with death. I have found myself remarking that I weather the tough stuff better than the small stuff. I need to work on my reactions to the smaller things for the sake of my children. They need good examples of patience and temperance and self-control.  Like Atticus Finch.  And Dr. McCool.

God bless you,


The Abbey Farm

Thursday, May 5, 2011

New Life

     We were surprised this evening by two new baby kids. Bessie did a wonderful job of making her babies fluffy and safe. Marie came running down the stairs and out the door saying, "I hear something!" We thought it was just one of her brothers making noise outside. Gus has a penchant for squeally sounds. We were wrong and Marie's ears proved sharp and right. We rushed out to see them with her. Marie helped them with their first drink.

  The boys came out and we all clamored to help and to try to be quiet (impossible--the kids will have to acclimate to four-boy-decibel level). Even Diego poked his head over the door. He made nickering sounds as Marie expressed colostrum for the babies. He watched contentedly over the barn door. He seemed to give Susanna approval as she warmed a furry little body.

     And this week our Mary Pat has been learning to walk holding onto only one of our hands. She can't stand on her own yet. She uses a walker at home and school. But I can't express how monumental a step this is. We think she will walk someday, but we never assume nor take for granted. Every step is a miracle. Every life a miracle!


The Abbey Farm